James Bond Retrospective: Thunderball

Hey guys, welcome to the fourth installment of my James Bond retrospective! We’ve fought the fiendish Dr. No (1962), we’ve tangled with Tatiana in From Russia With Love (1963), and we’ve escaped the cold touch of Goldfinger (1964).What tricks are hidden within today’s Thunderball?

First, some ground rules:

  1. Mainstream, EON films only.
  2. I’m doing these in release order. I’ll reference future films, but I won’t judge them by future film standards.
  3. There will be spoilers.

Thunderball (1965)

IS THAT A JET PACK? Oh wait it’s a space man cosplay, my mistake. Cute helmet.

So Goldfinger made Bond fun. Where do we go from here? Insanity, of course. Thunderball isn’t exactly beyond the realm of reason; however, the gimmicks have become the stars of the show. Before it would be unthinkable to cast anyone else but Connery, but by this point Bond was an icon beyond a singular performance. If there was a dashing British gentleman spy with gadgets, it was Bond. For better or worse, we’ve hit the formulaic stride.

The Plot

Evil terrorist organization SPECTRE’s new plan is to hijack two atomic bombs and hold a random city from any one of the NATO countries hostage. To do this, second-in-command Emilio Largo arranges a pilot carrying the bombs to die and be replaced by an identical decoy who will bring the nukes to a secret location in the Bahamas (spoiler: it’s Largo’s boat).

James Bond is relaxing on a medical retreat in a health clinic and by sheer luck he stumbles upon the real pilot’s dead body. When he is back at MI6 and hears of all the nuclear drama he tells M that his best shot at the bombs is by making contact with the pilot’s sister, Domino. Everyone at MI6 is skeptical, but M trusts Bond enough to send him to the Bahamas to talk to Domino.

In his efforts to seduce/mingle/whatever with the girl, he meets Domino’s romantic partner: Largo. Bond immediately recognizes him as a SPECTRE agent; Largo recognizes Bond. There’s a bit of back and forth here; Bond isn’t 100% sure the bombs are here and needs to confirm them with his CIA agent Felix Leiter, but Largo doesn’t want to kill Bond because it would tip the hand and MI6 and every other nation will come to the Bahamas breathing down their necks.

Eventually Bond gets too close, and a SPECTRE woman seduces him and he’s then held hostage. Bond narrowly escapes and gets the woman killed. Bond confronts Domino with the truth: Largo killed her brother. Domino agrees to help Bond look for the nukes, but she is discovered. Bond disguises himself as a henchman and finds them for himself; he contacts the Coast Guard and a thrilling action sequence ends with boats exploding, Largo getting harpooned in the chest and Bond escaping via helicopter with Domino. End.

I know what you’re thinking: did I put this guy before the closer look section because he has one eye? I’m not going to answer that, but now you’re thinking it.

A Closer Look

This is the point where Bond films are going to start to evade conventional plot analysis. Simply put, there’s way less substance here.

If you were wondering what the main Bond film that influenced Austin Powers was, it’s Thunderball. There’s definitely other Bond elements, but there are some beat for beat parody scenes in this film. I can’t watch the start of the film without thinking about Mike Myers punching grannies in the face for mistaking their gender, and I especially can’t think of the SPECTRE meeting and collapsing chairs without thinking about Dr. Evil.

This movie sets its tone in the early scenes better than GoldfingerGoldfinger gave us a display of Bond at his most… him, but Thunderball immediately shows the jet pack and water jet function on the car for the kiddies in the audience! I like the jet pack a lot actually; it looks super cheap in the very best way.

The theme song feels the most fitting for an action movie we’ve gotten so far. Granted, there’s really only been one major introductory theme song and two licensed songs at all, but the lyrics, the orchestra, the VOICE are all meant to convey suspense and action. Goldfinger’s song was meant to give an ominous feeling to the major antagonist, and by my very best scientific conclusions, From Russia With Love’s song exists to be on a gondola at the end of the film while Connery makes out with a babe. Both work, but they don’t necessarily make me pumped for anything.

Connery’s Bond never felt more like a guy working at a job. Yeah, he plays hard (a little too hard I might add) but we finally see him for a relatively extensive time at the office and with other Double-O’s. Every agent had the assignment; Bond was just the lucky guy that got a lead.

Were you really going to seduce her by looking like a fifty year old salmon?

The return to the tropical here cements this sort of locale as a safe place for Bond as a franchise. It’s juuuuust exotic enough to look good and retain familiarity. We rarely ever see the actual culture there save obviously for the parade sequence. The runner-up to feeling the culture is Leiter’s floral print shirt, and that’s not doing anybody any favors.

What’s Good?

I think the actress playing Domino is pretty. I say it every time, but she took the cake.

I think SPECTRE is properly addressed in this film. I joked about Austin Powers, and that is a problem looking back, but before this the organization was just the name on bad deeds. We saw Dr. No be a bad guy, and he was like, “I work for a thing called SPECTRE”, and then we saw Grant be a bad guy and he was like, “I work for a thing called SPECTRE”. SPECTRE being a shadow organization in the background wasn’t going to work again. The secret plots couldn’t be secret anymore. We get a full display of their villainy almost immediately, and their address to NATO meant SPECTRE is officially James Bond’s Moriarty. Notice how I didn’t say Blofeld was Bond’s Moriarty. This’ll be important like twenty movies later.

The parade sequence was the highlight of Bond action for me so far. The action scenes in general are improving tremendously in production value, and you can see it on screen. The ending too feels way more intense compared to the attempts at action towards the end of the other films.

What’s Bad?

So this is officially the point where Connery’s starting to give up. He doesn’t like the gig anymore. It’s very demanding, and there’s a lot of backstage drama with the producers. We see his tired demeanor sneak through the cracks of his performance. He’s not selling me when he’s fiddling around with that jetpack. Also, on a more superficial note, I don’t like his suits in this film, and his hair is starting to look really sad. We are starting to see him age even in the small amount of time he’s been Bond. This is probably the most common problem among all Bond actors: they stay Bond even when they get old.

And to do a little miniature analysis here, Bond is not a character that benefits from age. Unlike a typical hero like Luke Skywalker or something where it’s exciting to see their growth from child to man to wise man, Bond starts the same way you want to see him end. Development is kryptonite to Bond. Creatively, where does Bond go? The only times introspection and retrospection ever succeed in the franchise are when the questions asked are “Does Bond still got it?” or “Is Bond what we need?” Those should always be answered in the film with a “yes”. Bond’s not a cowboy. These films aren’t art.  Aston Martins don’t pay for themselves with artistic integrity.

Oh I forgot to mention a huge portion of the movie is scuba diving. Can’t see why I’d forget that exciting tidbit.

The plot is mediocre. I’m shocked that all the production company and everyone involved tried so desperately for this film to be the first Bond film. I’m shocked another production company thought because they also had the rights to it, it was good enough to remake.

The first half of the film is worse than the second half. The first film is led by luck and exposition. The action? We’ve got the introductory scene and then we’ve got really weird scenes where someone tries to kill Bond at the spa, and he’s like trapped on the belt and it does not work for me at all. Not to mention Bond’s handling with the nurse is grotesque; they hide the weird blackmail subtext with a wink, and I’m not sure how to feel when I see the door close. I definitely want those fur mittens though, dang.

When Largo is threatening to torture Domino, it doesn’t feel intimidating at all. Largo himself never really feels intimidating because it feels like he keeps shooting himself in the foot throughout the film. His most competent moment in the film is telling henchmen to throw a guy in a pool of sharks. For the torture sequence in particular, he’s like, “My beauty, I’m going to show you all forms of pain with hot and cold instruments scientifically applied to just the right areas,” and I’m wondering if it’s an adult movie I bought instead of my next Bond film. So I look behind me with the door locked, lower the volume, and question why it took like two hours to get to the good stuff.

I don’t think I’ve outright said it yet, but this is definitely the worst movie so far in the franchise. Before this, the films were good in spite of the bad. Here…. it’s all mediocre, and the good stuff is just a minor distraction.

Looking Forward

Looking forward we’ve got one more Connery film before he can’t take it anymore and calls it quits. You Only Live Twice (1967) is like the cheesiness of Thunderball meets racism. Connery in yellow face isn’t the best pitch for a film, I gotta say.

Then we actually get the first replacement Bond actor: George Lazenby. I don’t want to talk about him too much because he only has one film, and I really should save all my commentary for that, but I will say recasting Bond is the best decision they could ever make and the worst decision they could ever make is beg Connery to return because your last movie didn’t do so well.

Oh wait.

I like to think Bond’s favorite pair of shoes are those flippers. Just waddles with them from drink to drink.

What I Drank

Sky Juice in recognition of the Bahamas. A textbook definition features two ounces of gin then fill the rest of your cup with coconut water, but most people put a little over an ounce of condensed milk to make things sweeter. I did. Garnish with cherry.

I promise after this one I’m going to run to the store and get something other than gin for these drinks, I’ll be right back-

5 thoughts on “James Bond Retrospective: Thunderball

Leave a Reply